Inventing the Future: Shanghai's World Expo 2010

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has a large collection of automobiles -- 73 -- in its collection. But with the mission of collecting and preserving the entire heritage of the United States inside of one building on the National Mall, the museum's curators don't have the room required to display all of these machines. A new project allows you to vote for the two items you want to see rolled out of storage and showcased. Even if you don't vote or live near the museum, this unique week-long series of eight iconic artifacts will provide you with a quick history of the American automobile.

This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog. It is republished here with permission. It was written by Art Molella, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

See more posts about the Smithsonian.


This is Futurama!

In my last blog post, I took you on a brief tour of the Eco-City scene in China, in the northern area around Beijing. I wish, though, that I had been able to travel south to Shanghai to visit World Expo 2010, which closed at the end of October. Its theme of "Better City, Better Life" featured the Eco-City among technology-driven urban futures, not only in China but globally. World's fairs, at least for the past century or so, have been all about material progress and imagining technological futures, and the one in Shanghai was no exception.

This idea of "inventing the future" was loudly voiced in the early 1900s by the emerging Modernist movement. Two of the cruelest realities of early Modernism were the First World War and ensuing Great Depression. Clearly, the future seemed a better place (if you didn't foresee the coming of the next world war just down the road). The future itself became a place of invention, in large part because it freed one from the shackles of present reality.

SIFuture2-Post.jpgA virtual tour through the World Expo 2010 website offers evidence of this continuing theme of inventing the future. I was most fascinated by Zone E, containing the "Pavilion of the Future," where visitors were invited "to imagine what cities will be like in the future." Prospective scenarios were represented in five "dreamlike street settings" -- Ecological City, City of Wisdom, City of Water, Space City, and City of Energy. Among the possibilities presented were Low-Carbon City and Harmonious Environment, the latter a testament to the Chinese recognition of the "spiritual elements that have always driven human progress." Similarly, the SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation) - General Motors pavilion looked at how vehicles will change cities in 2030, predicting a new role for the car, scientifically redesigned to meet future energy, environmental, and communications needs. The car is seen as bringing people face to face, not virtually, but physically, thus becoming an "emissary for love." I liked this chaste view of the car's romantic possibilities.

Shanghai's World Expo 2010 was clearly in the grand tradition of the 1939 New York World's Fair theme of "World of Tomorrow." There, too, the automobile took center stage with the famous theme ride created for the General Motors Corporation by industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. "Futurama" gave visitors a picture of the car-dominated--but traffic-free--world of 1960 as they glided in speaker-equipped armchairs over an enormous model of rural land- and cityscapes dotted with Modernist skyscrapers, interlaced by multilane highways coursing through country and city alike that cleared away slums and derelict industrial sites in their paths. Showing some prescience, cars were equipped with radio transponders to maintain safe distance between each other, while special flyways put them above and out of the way of pedestrians and buildings. Though self-driving cars are now appearing in an experimental way (notably, the driverless Google Car), it is amazing how much of Futurama's scenario actually came true.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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